Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad played six years together in Florida before general manager Bill Zito arrived in the fall of 2020. They won two measly playoff games with the Panthers.

They are the only remnants of the previous administration, with goalkeeper Sergei Bobrovsky, hired by Dale Tallon in July 2019 on a seven-year, $70 million contract.

You don’t necessarily win with a 10 million goalie and players drafted in the top three (Jonathan Huberdeau completed the trio with Barkov and Ekblad).

Zito, a graduate of law school at the prestigious Yale University, first worked in large firms in New York and Chicago, then founded a players’ agency that became one of the largest in hockey. He then worked for a few seasons with Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus, before accepting the position in Florida.

Zito made courageous decisions upon his arrival. Mike Hoffman was coming off a 59-point season, including 29 goals, in just 69 games, 71 points and 34 goals prorated for a full year. Evgeny Dadonov finished fourth in team scoring, behind Hoffman, with 47 points, including 25 goals, in 69 games as well. Hoffman and Dadonov were not selected. They were replaced by players obtained for a pittance.

It took guts to trade the NHL’s second-highest scorer behind Connor McDavid in 2021-22, Jonathan Huberdeau, 44-point right-handed defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, and a first-round pick for just one player, Matthew Tkachuk.

As a good lawyer and former agent, Zito had done the math. Tkachuk, 24, wanted to leave Calgary. Huberdeau and Weegar were approaching thirty and were a year away from full autonomy. Zito was willing to take a step back for two longer-term leaps forward. He never had to back down.

Zito is in the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight year with one of the best forwards in the NHL, just 26 years old. The salaries of Huberdeau, 31, and Weegar, 30, will occupy 16.7 million of the total of the Calgary Flames, a club in a rejuvenating phase, until… 2031.

The way he surrounds Barkov, Ekblad and Bobrovsky is mind-blowing. Zito restructured his goaltending department by hiring legendary Quebec coach François Allaire in 2020, supported by Roberto Luongo, special advisor to the GM. Over the past few years, Bobrovsky has gone from mediocre, overpaid goaltender to playoff star.

Barkov plays center for Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart. Verhaeghe, 28, is coming off seasons of 42 and 34 goals. He has 18 points in 19 playoff games this spring. Zito first hired him for two years, for $1 million per year, in October 2020, one of his first decisions following the departures of Hoffman and Dadonov.

Verhaeghe now costs $4.1 million per season, in the second year of a three-year contract. Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson and Christian Dvorak are hitting more in Montreal.

Reinhart, 28, just scored 57 goals. He had obtained 31 and 33 in the previous two years. Zito gave the Sabers young goaltender Devon Levi and the 28th overall pick, who became Jiri Kulich. Both clubs are happy in their respective contexts.

Panthers sophomore center Sam Bennett is another gift from former Flames GM Brad Treliving. Zito got him for a late second round pick and Emil Heineman, subsequently traded to the Canadiens with a first round pick for Tyler Toffoli. This Panthers second round pick went to Seattle for a rental player, Calle Jarnkrok.

The right winger on the second line with Bennett and Tkachuk, Evan Rodrigues, has three goals so far in the final. He had 39 points this season. Hired for an annual salary of 3 million last summer…

On defense, the best of the group, Gustav Forsling, 23:21 usage, 11 points in 19 games, record of 14, was obtained… on waivers. Brandon Montour was acquired from the Sabres for a third-round pick (Stiven Sardarian). Niko Mikkola was signed on the free agent market last summer: $2.5 million per season for three years. The members of the third pair, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov, two experienced players once drafted in the top 15, cost $3.25 million together.

The tax rate obviously favors the Panthers. Zito was not perfect in failing to score with his rental players Ben Chiarot and Claude Giroux (an error he never repeated). But he represents a model for many managers in the NHL.

He was named among the finalists for the trophy awarded to the CEO par excellence three times in four years. He never won it. We bet he prefers a Stanley Cup…

Forget Leon Draisaitl’s superstar status for a moment. His elbow to the head of Aleksander Barkov on Monday evening constituted an attempted injury. A dirty and premeditated move. Draisaitl was punished for two minutes on this play. A lack of courage from the referees. Will the NHL have more today?